The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 16, 2018

Can the private sector help address the global refugee crisis?

November 16, 2018

As the global refugee crisis persists, refugees continue to leave war-ravaged countries and increase the strain on the world’s philanthropic sector. Conflicts and instability have expelled more than 68 million men, women, and children from their homes.  With widening funding gaps and no resolution in sight, the international humanitarian system must tap into new sources of funding, resources, and expertise to care for the expanding population of displaced people. 

The private sector can, and should, help address this crisis.  By partnering with humanitarian organizations, for-profit companies offer a unique perspective and wealth of resources to help refugees.

These socially responsible partnerships, which we've documented and cataloged, engage the private sector in humanitarian efforts by giving them the opportunity to generate gains for their business while also producing value for refugees by joining with mission-driven non-profits.  These partnerships are more likely to provide meaningful and ongoing help to refugees if they are profitable for businesses.

How the private sector is already helping

Several successful partnerships exist and are making big differences for refugees all over the world.  IKEA is working with the Jordan River Foundation to empower refugees and the local community by integrating them in local supply chains.  Refugees and vulnerable members of the preexisting community, especially women, earn livelihoods by producing goods for IKEA in Jordan River Foundation facilities.

In Uganda, the private telecom subsidiary Airtel expanded connectivity to the Bidi Bidi refugee camps to facilitate a humanitarian mobile cash transfer system. This system allowed a constellation of non-profits including UNHCR, Mercycorps, Danish Church Aid, the Ugandan government to better connect refugees with aid for food.  Airtel expanded its services and network to a host of new customers, while the non-profits streamlined their in-kind assistance to refugees to a direct cash transfer program. 

These partnerships provide just a few examples of the how private sector can help refugees and host communities while also pursuing their own business interests.   

What are the keys to successful partnerships? 

Looking at the cases of existing partnerships, we identified four characteristics of thriving socially responsible partnerships:

  1. Clear and upfront communication. 
  • Businesses and non-profits approach the world in different ways.  Their differences often manifest in a mutual mistrust that requires significant time and resources to overcome. 
  • Communication is key to cooperation. Clear communication of motives, expectations, and day-to-day proceedings helps both sides see eye-to-eye.
  1. Matchmaking by local intermediaries. 
  • Local groups can help partnerships get off the ground by connecting private companies with compatible charities.  This intervention bypasses the information asymmetries, reduces risks, and mitigate competitive tendencies that can stall partnerships before they even begin.
  1. Flexible structure, supported strongly by senior leadership.  
  • Highly active communication channels, especially with leaders from each of the partners, help resolve issues quickly and build trust.  Visible and meaningful support from the higher-ups demonstrates commitment to the project and can fast-track progress.
  1. A robust business case for the private sector company.  
  • Refugees offer a real-world testing opportunity and an untapped potential market for products and services.  These incentives drive companies to join with humanitarian organizations to help displaced communities.  By combining a search for profits with a philanthropic mission, partnerships benefit both the private entity and the refugees they help.

How can we encourage more socially responsible partnerships? 

Innovation could help create more partnerships between the public and private sector.  A new database, for example, could  help match private companies with a compatible humanitarian organization.  The database could help set up partnerships; share information; ensure both partners are cooperating and contributing; and undertake monitoring, evaluation and learning through rigorous research. 

As more private companies learn about the success of existing partnerships, they may form their own.  More research would also help increase awareness of these partnership and provide further insights on how to overcome common barriers.    

By providing in-demand employment and services, private-humanitarian partnerships offer a promising approach to addressing the global refugee crisis. 

South Sudanese refugee Sarah Kiden (right), 19, uses her e-voucher card to buy vegetables from host community member Bako Diana, 32, at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in northern Uganda where Sarah lives with her husband and one-year-old daughter. Photo by Catherine Robinson/UNHCR.

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